Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
1. Whale souls
Silent reading, as we know it in the West, is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Ivan Illich, popularized only in the 12th century by the influential French abbot Hugh of St. Victor. Prior to that time, even a monk reading alone in his cell would sound the words out. How else could their full power be felt?
The origin of silent prayer is not so easy to pinpoint. The practice of meditation in one form or another is probably as old as the hunter’s profession. Such meditations – of necessity silent, so as not to spook the game – need not be the especial province of men, either. A while back I quoted Tom Lowenstein (Ancient Land, Sacred Whale, FSG, 1993) about the bowhead hunt as formerly practiced by the Inuit of Tikigaq, in North Alaska. The male and female skinboat owners (umialik) had equally potent roles in visualizing and conjuring the prey animal:
In contrast to her “Raven” husband’s freedom on the sea, the woman umialik stayed at home in her iglu and did nothing for most of the whale hunt. This, in essence, was her mythic role. Secluded and overtly idle like the uiluaqtaq of the story, the umialik woman was completely passive. . . . Within this inertia lay shamanistic power. How this functioned may be seen in the umialik’s parallel actions.
The woman’s springtime ritual in fact started on the sea-ice. On the first day of the hunt, when the male crew left Tikigaq, the woman walked ahead to the open water. With the help of the woman the crew would have found a good place to wait, and the woman lay down on the ice with her head pointing toward Tikigaq while the men embarked and pushed off from the ice. After travelling a short distance the steersman brought his boat round and returned to the ice-edge. Silently, the harpooner leaned over the prow, dipped his weapon in the water opposite the woman and then touched her parka. When she had been “struck”, the woman got up and, without looking back, walked home.
The moment she reached her iglu the woman ceased activity, and for the rest of the hunt sat passively on the sleeping bench. . . . While her posture on the ice had resembled the rising whale and the position of her head indicated the direction from which the whale must come, woman had been the whale’s body. In her ritual tranquility she now enacted the whale’s soul. Not only did she transmit to the whales the generous passivity that whales were supposed to feel towards their hunters, but she already was the whale’s soul, resident within her Tikigaq iglu, suspended between the conditions of life and death that the hunt counterpoised and made sacred.
It is difficult for most of us to grasp the depth of affection one might feel toward an Animal whose body is not only food but also the Land itself. How the overtly active man and the overtly passive woman together contrive to weave a net of longing for the beloved animal was at the heart of the annual drama of the Tikigaq Inuit.
Quiet as the woman remains, she and her husband are in balanced partnership. . . . But the whale brought home through the shared operation implies a third partner in the myth-role. This third partner is the land itself. Land, like the woman, is externally quiet but dynamic within. And like all symbols of the whale hunt the land remains ambiguous. . . . Tikigaq [peninsula] is primal sea-beast, its iglus microcosmic versions of the whale and the sea-beast. When a Tikigaq harpooner strikes the land whale stirs; when the katak [iglu entrance hole] gives birth with the death of a bowhead the whale in the katak is both Tikigaq nuna [land], and bowhead, and just katak.
As Lowenstein’s informants put it:
These small whales, inutuqs,
small round fat ones
come to us from down there,
from their country south of us.
The women sit at home.
They are whale souls in their iglus.
The whales listen and sing.
They hear Tikigaq singing.
Listen to the north wind!
Listen to the sea-ice!
Listen to the inutuq
2. A mindful god
According to Jewish tradition, silent prayer was invented by a woman.
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions. But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.
And her adversary [i.e. Peninnah] also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat. Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou, and why eatest thou not, and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?
So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk.
Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD.
And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.
And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.
Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.
Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD. And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow. But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever. And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish his word.
So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child was young. And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli. And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD. For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him. Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.
Thus the King James Bible, 1 Samuel 1. For Hannah’s song of thanksgiving – model for Miriam’s song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – let’s turn to the Anchor Bible translation by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.
My heart exults in Yahweh!
My horn is raised by my god!
My mouth is stretched over my enemies!
I rejoice in my vindication.
For there is no holy one like Yahweh,
And no mountain like our god!
Do not speak haughtily
Or let arrogance out of your mouth.
For Yahweh is a mindful god,
And a god who balances his actions:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
While the feeble are girded with armor;
The sated have hired out for bread,
While the hungry are fattened on food;
The childless wife has borne seven,
While the mother of many sons is bereaved.
It is Yahweh who slays and quickens,
Who sends down to Sheol and brings up.
It is Yahweh who makes poor and makes rich,
Who debases and also exalts;
Who raises the poor from the dust,
From the scrap heaps lifts the needy,
To give them a seat with noblemen
And grant them a chair of honor.
For the straits of the earth are Yahweh’s . . .
3. Red wedding
Behold, a female anthropologist married a god, a warrior diety of a people doubly exiled: first from Africa, then from Haiti. Like the god of Israel in exile ramifying into the ten-fold sefirot, this god too has subdivided.
As Sen Jak Majè (Saint James the Elder), Ogou is a “man of war” who fights for what is right and just. As Ogou Panama, he is a pèsònaj (an important person) who demands to be treated with ceremony and deference. As Ogou Ferray, he is fierce and uncompromising. As Ogou Badagri, he is shy, handsome, brave and loyal. Yet, as Ogou Yamson, he is an unreliable drunkard who finds power in booze and swaggering talk; and, as Agèou, he is a liar and beggar. And when Ogou is called by the names Achade or Shango (the two are sometimes conflated into one character), he is said to be a sorceror.
(Karen McCarthy Brown: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991)
There are many more Ogou besides these, says Brown. What qualities unite them?
Ogou teaches that to live one must fight. Pride, endurance, self-assertion, discipline, and a firm commitment to justice are qualities that bring success. But in one turn of the screw, pride can become braggadocio, endurance can become stubbornness, self-assertion fades into mere bullying, and discipline is transformed into tyranny. An overly developed sense of justice, one that is tempered neither by humor nor by graceful resignation, can lead to suicidal rage. . . . Because the constructive and destructive parts of Ogou’s character are so close together, none of the various Ogou is good or evil, right or wrong, in a simple, unqualified way. Each contains his own paradoxes of personality, which are teased out in possession-performance and in song. In July of 1979, for example, [Brown’s priestess] Alourdes’s community sang a lively song for all the Ogou:
Papa Ogou, tou piti kon sa.
Papa Ogou, anraje.
Papa Ogou, all children are like that.
Papa Ogou, enraged.
Such lean phrasing, replete with double and triple entendre, is characteristic of Vodou songs. From one perspective, Ogou is counseled in this song to show forbearance toward his children, his followers. From another, Ogou is a strutting banty rooster who throws childish tantrums when he cannot have his way.
As with the storm-god Yahweh’s evolution into the LORD of Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, when the African gods crossed the ocean, they “submerged their connections to the natural world and elaborated their social messages.” But they did not at the same time retreat into an ever-more remote heaven, accessible only to true believers and only in the afterlife. Quite the opposite: the gods became more down-to-earth and accessible, entering directly into the bodies of their followers for frequent dramatic performances that mingled high seriousness and low comedy. And whereas the People of the Book stress the believer’s inner intention, all one needs to bring to the Vodou spirits (in addition to the appropriate offerings) is an open mind. “Try it and see if it work for you,” the priestess Alourdes urges her clients.
Vodou practitioners have little use for abstractions. “Vodou seldom halts its kinaesthetic and sensory drama to force its wisdom into concept or precept; proverbs, anecdotes, ancestral tales, and songs are the only vehicles subtle and flexible enough to cradle the messages when the truths of Vodou are put into words,” Brown notes. In this respect, it resembles indigenous and village-based religions the world over. In some sense, can we not agree with the ancient Chinese philosophers who argued that when religion has to promulgate formal precepts, it’s simply a sign that society has entered a crisis phase, a breakdown in communal norms? Viewed from the ethnocentric perspective of inhabitants of an urbanized civilization, we tend to view “tribal” religions as earlier stages in a progressive evolution leading (of course) to us, and perhaps beyond. But which kind of religion tends more closely to reflect the true, mind-boggling complexity of nature? Is the desert- or alpine-dweller’s longing for transcendent Godhead, moksha or nirvana automatically superior to the Vodou priestess’s regular experiences of immanence within a rainforest-like profusion of sacred roles?
But of course, there’s no reason to see transcendence and immanence as necessarily opposed; Haitians certainly don’t. Virtually all Vodou devotees consider themselves good Catholics. They would disagree strongly with my use of the term “god” for Ogou – he is considered a spirit.
Bondye (God) is singular and supreme in Haitian Vodou. He is a deity with roots in the Christian god as well as in the so-called high gods of West Africa. Yet in the Haitian view of things, Bondye, like his African models, rarely gets involved with individual human lives. Attention to the everyday drama of life is the work of his “angels,” the Vodou spirits. . . .
In Vodou, as in virtually all religions, “the spirits select their special devotees, not the reverse.” In fact, I suggest that if we are to draw any meaningful distinction whatsoever between religion and magic, this question of who selects whom would make an excellent criterion. The sorcerer commands and attempts to exert control over the animating forces of the universe with little concern for their own sovereignty or well-being. The religious person petitions, offers sacrifice, bows in thanksgiving, offers devotion. The religious person partakes; the sorceror consumes. For in many, many cultures the relationship to the sacred finds symbol and expression in the most essential forms of union: eating and making love.
Within Alourdes’s group of special spirits, one stands out. He is her mèt tèt (the master of her head), Ogou Badagri. But the dominance of Ogou Badagri in her life does not go unchecked. . . . For example, even if a situation has called out the aggression of the Ogou in Alourdes, Gede can possess her and put the matter in an entirely different light through his iconoclastic humor. . . .
Because Alourdes has gone through the Vodou marriage to Ogou Badagri, she calls him her “husband.” She sets aside one night a week for him. On this night, she receives the handsome soldier in dreams, and no human lover shares her bed. . . .
The most striking part of Ogou Badagri’s character is his ability to endure in the face of trials that would break many others. . . . Forsaking attack, Alourdes, like Badagri, chooses wakefulness. She draws her power around her like a cloak, holding it close to her body. She does not dream of extending herself outward and conquering the world. Rather, she controls what experience has taught her she is able to control – herself.
The anthropologist too has Ogou around her head. From the very beginning of her involvement with Vodou, she says, “every priest or priestess who chose to make a diagnosis told me that Papa Ogou was my mèt tèt.”
Although I had witnessed many Vodou marriages and been fascinated by them, I originally had no intention of going through the ritual myself. Then, one day in 1980 when I was alone in my apartment and full of rage (I had some things to be angry about at that period of my life), I found myself muttering, “Stop trying to make the anger go away. It only makes it worse. It’s yours. Marry it!” I picked up the phone and called Alourdes.
Brown resolved to do, as she put it, “fieldwork on my own psyche.” Alourdes performed divination, diagnosing her as suffering from a blockage of will or energy. She thinks too much, acts too timidly. As Brown explains, “a life of energy or flow” is the Vodou ideal. “The goal of all Vodou ritualizing is to echofe (heat things up) so that people and situations shift and move, and healing transformations can occur.”
The marriage took place the next month at Ogou’s regularly scheduled July birthday party. Around two o’clock in the morning, when the songs summoning Ogou began, I excused myself from the twenty-five or so people gathered around Alourdes’s sumptuous altar tables. I went upstairs to change into my wedding clothes – a bright red sundress purchased especially for the occasion and, on my head, a red satin scarf. When I came down the stairs half an hour later, everyone oohed and aahed over my fine attire. Everyone, that is, except Papa Ogou.
He had mounted Alourdes in my absence, and I found him decked out in his own finery, his red velvet military jacket with the gold epaulets. But Ogou ignored me. I stood by patiently while he talked to one person after another without acknowledging my presence. No matter how I maneuvered, he always managed to keep his back to me.
Everyone was getting nervous. One woman said, “Papa Ogou, your beautiful bride is here, behind you. Don’t you want to talk to her?” Ogou ignored the question. Then a man whispered in my ear, “Go on!” and gave me a shove in front of Ogou. The spirit looked at me with a cold eye. “What do you want?” he asked. I found my voice. “I am here to marry you. You promised you would marry me. You have made me wait a long time. I am ready.” Papa Ogou threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep, rich laugh. “Begin the ceremony!” he shouted, and, taking my arm, he propelled me toward the largest of the altar tables. Once again, Ogou had taught me the warrior’s lesson: know what you want and fight for it.
4. Pronouncing no name
The African American poet Lucille Clifton composed a moving series of poems on her husband Fred’s death from leukemia at the age of 49. They are included in her book Next (BOA Editions, 1987). Toward the end, Lucille’s own voice has become submerged in the voice of her dying husband:
leukemia as dream/ritual
it is night in my room.
the woman beside me is dying.
a small girl stands
at the foot of my bed.
she is crying and carrying wine
and a wafer.
her name is the name i would have given
the daughter i would have liked to have had.
she grieves for herself and
not for the woman.
she mourns the future and
not the past.
she offers me her small communion.
i roll the wafer and wine on my tongue.
i accept my body. i accept my blood.
eat she whispers. drink and eat.
something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me. so much.
i am not wiling, gardener, to give you up to this.
the death of fred clifton
i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and i saw with the most amazing
so that i had not eyes but
and, rising and turning
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
“i’m going back to my true identity”
i was ready to return
to my rightful name.
i saw it hovering near
in blazoned script
and, passing through fire,
i claimed it. here
is a box of stars
for my living wife.
tell her to scatter them
pronouncing no name.
tell her there is no deathless name
a body can pronounce.
I suspect that some of my readers are, like me, fans of detailed footnotes. This morning I came across a doozy. It’s on the bottom (naturally!) of pages 14-15 in my edition of Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (University of California Press, 1970 ). For what it’s worth, this is not a numbered note but an asterisked one. Here it is.
In Homer, the word for “word” is mythos. In later Greek, it gives way to logos. The current stress upon mythology particularly needs the corrective of logology because mythology has come to place too great stress upon the sheer imagery of thought. The strongly terministic concern of logology is designed to correct this deficiency without leading on the other hand to an overly scientistic view of language as motive. Surely, the mere fact that the symbol-systems of chemistry, bacteriology, and nuclear physics now make it possible for persons in authority, if they will, to poison the entire planet is not of itself evidence that such terminologies are “accurate,” and that they should be taken as models which even the terminologies of the social sciences and the humanities should imitate. Rather, are they not on their face evidence that we must keep searching? If it is necessary to consider all the symbolic dimensions involved in the motives of the symbol-using animal. And this text [i.e. The Rhetoric of Religion] is intended to show why any secular theory of language that ignores the hints provided by theology is bound to be inadequate, whether or not theology is “true.”
Since “God” by definition transcends all symbol-systems, we must begin, like theology, by noting that language is intrinsically unfitted to discuss the “supernatural” literally. For language is empirically confined to terms referring to physical nature, terms referring to socio-political relationships and terms describing language itself. Hence, all the words for “God” must be used analogically – as were we to speak of God’s “powerful arm” (a physical analogy), or of God as “lord” or “father” (a socio-political analogy) or of God as the “Word” (a linguistic analogy). The idea of God as a “person” would be derived from analogy from the sheerly physical insofar as persons have bodies, from the socio-political insofar as the idea of personality implies such kinds of “reason” in flower in man’s symbol-using prowess (linguistic, artistic, philosophic, scientific, moralistic, pragmatic).
Burke’s point about certain technologies’ power to poison the planet revealing the limitations of scientific expression would be, I suspect, lost on most members of our society, intellectuals included. By contrast, such an observation would, I believe, be received as self-evident truism by many native peoples of this hemisphere and beyond. Our inability or unwillingness to admit the possibility of knowledge apart from that knowledge that equates to power marks us – as I have said before – as a sorcerer or cannibal culture, similar to that of pre-modern Fiji or Tenochtitlan.
Parenthetically, I must confess that this book presents me with a delicious sort of quandary. I picked it up some six months ago, and have dipped into it repeatedly since then. But the problem is, each time I find something so congruent with my own thinking, I immediately suffer pangs of regret that I had to read it in someone else’s words first, before formulating it on my own. It’s not a matter of jealousy – ideas are (or should be) free and sovereign – but simply a recognition that the process involved in arriving at a given thought can be more valuable than the thought itself. (The truly revealed or poetic word is a different matter altogether, existing uniquely for itself and not in service to a mere idea. Thus, I allow myself to read other people’s poetry with utter abandon and promiscuity.)
Oh Lord, major déjà vu here all of a sudden. This has all happened before. Aaaaaagh.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
Late morning. I’ve just polished off what I hope are the last re-writes to “Longing (2)” when the intercom buzzes: a phone call. When I go up to my parents’ house, the place is rockin’. Mom’s playing that darn loud music on her kitchen stereo again! I take the call upstairs in her study. It’s my friend Jo, wondering if I’ll be able to attend the Yusuf Komunyakaa reading at Penn State next Friday night. The whole time we’re on the phone, I can hear my mom’s rich mezzo-soprano, singing along with Madama Butterfly – the old RCA Victor recording with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker.
When I come downstairs, I poke my head in the kitchen. It’s well into Act III. I think they’re at the part where Butterfly is desperately clinging to her last shred of hope.
È qui, è qui . . . . dove è nascosto? (He’s here, he’s here . . . where is he hiding?)
Mom’s mincing onions; her eyes are wet but she’s grinning. “I just love this, it’s so beautiful!” she enthuses. “I keep thinking, ‘You poor girl, why you don’t realize what a bastard he is?'”
George R. Farek, in an essay included in the liner notes, “The Failure and Success of Butterfly”:
These frail, fragile creatures, these unheroic heroines who, loving wholly, are wholly broken by love, these are the ones who fired Puccini’s mind. . . .
Puccini did not seek to storm the heavens. His music lives not on a mountain top but in a small house, in the case of Butterfly a very small house with sliding walls, rented for nine hundred and ninety-nine years with the privilege of cancellation at any time. Here the composer was at home, here he could express, in a language of incomparable sensitiveness, the romantic pulse of his heart. . . . To be inspired, he had to, as he himself said, fall in love with his Mimìs and Liùs, and we may take him at his word when he tells us he loved Cio-Cio-San more than any other of his women.
The literary possibilities of the mysterious East were being discovered at the turn of the century and Puccini was aware of it. To the romancers Japan was a country exclusively inhabited by people of refinement where every man’s thoughts were subtle and every woman bowed low in sweet submission. Novels and stories with a Japanese locale abounded and its art was influencing European art, particularly the work of the French impressionists and Whistler. The public, to quote Bunthorne in Patience, longed for all one sees that’s Japanese.
Have you ever gone to an opera performance and wondered about the musicians, playing this heart-rending music night after night in darkness down in the pit? When at last they stand and turn, bowing, you applaud as if for fellow audience members who have done an especially fine job of cheering, driving the performers to new, impossible heights of emotion.
Kate Light is the award-winning author of two books of highly urbane poems in the neo-formalist mode, The Laws of Falling Bodies and Open Slowly. She works as a violinist for the New York City Opera. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting her and attending a reading she gave at Penn State. Given the formidable learning on display in her poems, I was surprised by how unpretentious she was – basically still an ebullient, down-to-earth Midwesterner despite her years of residence in New York. In physical appearance, she rather resembles that Puccini-esque ideal – small, delicate-featured – but the voice in her poems, most of which deal with love in some form, is very wise and anything but fragile.
One of the poems she read that night, a villanelle called “After the Season,” deals directly with her feelings for the characters onstage at the opera. By way of introduction, Light said something like, “Can you imagine what it is like to witness the same tragic errors night after night and feel powerless to stop them?” Yes, of course we can: it is at the root of every opera lover’s longing, the thing, more than anything else, that inspires that lovely throb in the throat.
. . . I am making madness sane, setting prisoners free,
cooling the consumptive cheek, the fevered glow.
Do not talk to me just now; let me be.
Pinkerton and Butterfly make such a happy
couple; Violetta has five gardens now to show …
I am reuniting all the lovers, fishing the drowned from the sea . . .
Please read the complete poem, which appears in her second book, Open Slowly.
I remember reading, years ago, about the initial reaction to Western opera among Japanese. It was sometime in the early Meiji era, not long after Japan’s forced opening by Admiral Perry’s black ships. Someone – let’s say the American ambassador – had invited a number of dignitaries to his residence to hear a recital by a well-regarded Italian soprano. The Japanese listened politely as long as they could, but finally they couldn’t take it any more and burst out laughing. The distance between this aesthetic and those governing Japan’s own operatic traditions, Kabuki and Noh, was simply too great.
For years, as a one-time student of Noh dance, I was unable to appreciate Western opera myself. It’s odd, isn’t it, that the same basic emotions – longing and pathos – can give rise to such starkly contrasting aesthetic ideals. Or are they the same emotions? To suppose that they are assumes that such refined feelings can exist independently of the cultures that shape their expression . . .
At any rate, according the liner notes, something similar – and far more disastrous – happened at the world premiere of Butterfly, at La Scala in Milan, on February 17, 1904.
As the gentle chirping of birds was heard, the audience answered: they barked like dogs, burst into cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters, brayed like asses, and mooed like cows as if – [the lead soprano, Rosina] Storchio said – dawn in Japan was taking place in Noah’s Ark. Nothing after that failed to strike the audience as funny. The final scene, the preparation for the suicide and the suicide itself, was heard in comparative quiet, but when the curtain fell, Butterfly ended amidst laughter and derogatory shouts. There were no curtain calls, not a single one.
For a native Italian audience, such a reaction seems inexplicable. Although I confess I’m not a huge fan of Puccini’s music, as I read about this fiasco last night, I found my eyes tearing up with sympathy. And one can’t help but admire his decisiveness and resourcefulness in the face of such humiliation, canceling all scheduled performances, paying off La Scala, withdrawing the score, revising the opera a bit, and finally, on the 28th of May, premiering the revised version in the nearby town of Brescia – an unmitigated triumph. This sensitive and reclusive man, who had little use for heroic male roles in his own works, rose magnificently to the occasion in the service of his fiction, his beloved Butterfly.
Why “Butterfly”? The answer seems obvious: butterflies are delicate, ephemeral creatures, easily blown astray by the storms of fate. Then, too, they can symbolize transformative realization, though I’m not sure to what extent Puccini might have been thinking along those lines. Given his penchant for Orientalism, however, he must have read a version of Zhuangzi’s famous parable about dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if perhaps instead he himself were merely the dream of a butterfly. Certainly the composer wished to convey a sense of dream-like insubstantiality about the existence of women like Cio-Cio-San, and he had read enough about Japanese aesthetics to understand the value accorded impermanence there.
The literalist in me wonders, though: are butterflies really so helpless? In light of current knowledge, should we perhaps stop thinking of butterflies this way?
As luck would have it, just this morning my mother lent me a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of Hawk Mountain News, which carries her article “Amazing Monarchs.” Yes, of course monarch butterflies are vulnerable to habitat destruction – no less than jaguars or polar bears. But otherwise they seem, collectively, quite resilient, as suggested by their rapid rebound from the massive die-off caused by freezing rain in January 2002. Individually, too, these insects defy human expectations. Individuals weighing just half a gram fly 2,000 miles to a very circumscribed destination they have never seen in central Mexico, over-winter there, and then travel as far north as the southern U.S. the next spring before mating and dying. Just how they manage to navigate is still a hotly contested issue among scientists.
The inter-migrational generations are certainly ephemeral, though being suckled exclusively on milkweed milk makes them nearly invulnerable to predation.
In their summer territory, which includes most of North America, adult monarchs live from two to six weeks. The cycle begins in mid-June, when monarchs can be observed coupling, flying high in the air, abdomen to abdomen. In Pennsylvania, three or four generations are produced each summer.
After mating, the female lays between 630 and 1,260 minute, golden eggs over a 30-day period on the undersides of tender, young milkweed leaves, the exclusive food source for the monarch larvae. Soon after the female lays her eggs, both the adult male and female will die.
A while back I wrote a strange poem about butterflies, based on – yes – a dream I had in which I thought I was a mourning cloak. The mourning cloak and its relative the Compton’s tortoiseshell are the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring, because, unlike the monarchs, they don’t migrate, but over-winter right here. In the dream, I pursued an illicit, inter-species affair with a deeply feminine Compton’s. I awoke feeling an immense sadness and longing, and decided to try and translate that feeling into poetry.
The result was probably, I fear, a bit obscure. I chose the title “Brushfoot,” an allusion to the genus that includes both species, but this is a little misleading since one of the other species mentioned in the poem, the red admiral, is also a brushfoot. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should keep it simple and go with “Butterfly.” It’s currently the opening poem in my manuscript Capturing the Hive – one of three insect poems in that collection – but now I’m wondering if it wasn’t kind of dumb to lead off with such a potentially obscure poem.
I said you, you, until my tongue curled up.
You the delectable pair of antennae,
of a tortoise shell
& I in my mourning cloak,
waiting all winter in the form of a dead leaf.
When the warm weather came it didn’t stay,
the new leaves were roused out of their buds
& punished by frost after frost.
The spring ephemerals held
a solid month: bloodroot, mitrewort,
hepatica, Solomon’s seal.
Clouds of pollen filmed our mirrored glasses.
At length the hotter sun conspired
with the encroaching shade
to do away with indeterminacy:
lost spot where we used to meet,
where our tastes coincided,
now & again overlapped.
Our fling appalled
the guardians of natural order, for whom
the world belongs to the young, thrills
to the mastery of monarchs,
the rakish esprit of admirals–all
those that glide from bank
to bank of ranker weeds,
those that soar.
So far from you whose genius it is to flit.
Whatever the merit of Puccini’s other guesses about Japan, he wasn’t wrong about the premium placed on childlike fragility in traditional Japanese notions about feminine desirability. I remember how shocked I was back in 1985 when I first arrived in Japan, got on a bus and heard the hyper-feminized voice in the recordings announcing each stop. At the time, this was an ideal that unmarried Japanese women still sought to approximate. After marriage, however, they often underwent a transformation scarcely less astonishing than that of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Especially after the birth of their first child, women’s voices deepened with authority as they assumed full responsibility for the economic management of the household. Their bodies filled out, once-delicate limbs turning into daikon no ashi, as popular wisdom had it: legs like Japanese radishes, sturdy white columns of pungent flesh.
I gather that Japan has undergone something of a feminist revolution in the two decades since. When I was there, the subject of women’s liberation came up frequently when I talked with co-eds at the college I attended. “American women need liberation more than we do,” they would insist, appealing to a widespread stereotype. “They’re so weak! They have to ask their husbands for money!”
The anonymous 12th-century manuscript Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari has been called the world’s oldest collection of short stories. Its stories display a concern, unusual for the late Heian period, with the bizarrely comic. They parody the affectations and pretensions of Heian literature with an effect rather like laughter at the performance of a tragic opera.
The most famous of these stories, “The Lady Who Loved Insects,” finds comedy in the affairs of a young, would-be naturalist. Here’s how it begins:
Next door to the lady who loved butterflies was the house of a certain Provincial Inspector. He had an only daughter, to whose upbringing he and his wife devoted endless care. She was a strange girl, and used to say: “Why do people make so much fuss about butterflies and never give a thought to the creatures out of which butterflies grow? It is the Natural Form of things that is always the most important.” She collected all kinds of reptiles and insects such as most people are frightened to touch, and watched them day by day to see what they would turn into, keeping them in various sorts of little boxes and cages. Among these creatures her favourite was the common caterpillar. Hour after hour, her hair pushed back from her eyes, she would sit gazing at the furry black form that nestled in the palm of her hand. She found that other girls were frightened of these pets, and her only companions were a number of rather rough little boys, who were not in the least afraid. She got them to carry about the insect-boxes, find out the name of the insects or, if this could not be done, help her give them new names.
She hated anything that was not natural. Consequently she would not pluck a single hair from her eyebrows nor would she blacken her teeth, saying it was a dirty and disagreeable custom. So morning, noon and night she tended her insects, bending over them with a strange, white gleaming-smile. People on the whole were frightened of her and kept away; the few who ventured to approach her came back with the strangest reports. If anyone showed the slightest distaste for her pets, she would ask him indignantly how he could give way to so silly and vulgar a prejudice, and as she said this she would stare at the visitor under her black, bushy eyebrows in a way that made him extremely uncomfortable.
Her parents thought all this very peculiar and would much rather she had been more like other children; but they saw it was no use arguing with her. She for her part took immense trouble in explaining her ideas, but this only resulted in making them feel that she was much cleverer than they. “No doubt,” they would say, “all you tell us is quite true, and so far as we are concerned you may do as you please. But people as a rule only make pets of charming and pretty things. If it gets about that you keep hairy caterpillars you will be thought a disgusting girl and no one will want to know you.” “I do not mind what they think,” she answered. “I want to inquire into everything that exists and find out how it began. Nothing else interests me. And it is very silly of them to dislike caterpillars, all of which will soon turn into lovely butterflies.” Then she again explained to them carefully how the cocoon, which is like the thick winter clothes that human beings wear, wraps up the caterpillar till its wings have grown and it is ready to be a butterfly. Then it suddenly waves its white sleeves and flits away. . . .
(Arthur Waley, tr., in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation of Arthur Waley, Ivan Morris, ed., Creative Arts Book Company, 1981)
The rest of the story, which purports to be the first scroll from a lost novel, records the archly sarcastic poems and practical jokes sent her way by other young ladies and two pretend suitors. A woman who thinks for herself, ha ha. Scientific curiosity about the natural world – how unfeminine and absurd.
But the portrait itself is so compelling, so realistic and so true to type, for anyone who has ever read about the lives of female naturalists in our own society, it’s hard not to feel that it was based on some real person. I’m reminded of the 18th- and 19th-century pioneering women naturalists portrayed in my mother’s book, Women in the Field. At the thought of this long-ago, misunderstood woman, the butt of jokes, the model for an unflattering literary portrait probably circulated widely among the sophisticated young men and women of Kyoto’s incestuous elite, I feel a familiar catch in my throat. Ah, if only . . .
. . . you can’t think of a single reason why anyone would oppose a privately funded memorial to Vietnam War resisters. Cowards? These people risked everything! And how does their decision to evade the draft reflect on the personal integrity of those who obeyed orders to serve when their numbers came up?
O.K., so maybe I should just move to Canada . . .
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
The first text I want to present here today consists of an extended passage from the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, compiled by order of the Japanese imperial court and completed in 712 A.D. (Donald L. Philippi, tr., University of Tokyo Press, 1968).
After the death of the emperor, the crown prince Ki-Nasi-no-Karu was to have assumed the sun-lineage; but before he ascended the throne, he seduced his younger sister Karu-no-Opo-Iratume, singing this song:
Making a mountain paddy,
Because the mountain is high,
An irrigation pipe is run
Underneath the ground, secretly –
My beloved, whom I have visited
With secret visits;
My spouse, for whom I have wept
With a secret weeping –
Tonight at last
I caress her body with ease.
This is Sirage-Uta [a song ending in a raised pitch; or possibly, a song in the style of the ancient kingdom of Silla, on the Korean peninsula].
Also he sang these songs:
The hail beats down
On the bamboo grass
Sounding tasi-dasi [i.e., “to the full”] –
After sleeping with her to the full,
Then, even if she leaves me . . .
[or, “Then, even if people try to separate us . . . ]
With each other as beloved,
If only we sleep together,
Then, even if we are separated
Like threshed reeds, let us be separated [or “disheveled”] –
If only we sleep together.
These are Pina-Buri no Age-Uta [songs in the rustic style with elevated pitch and/or sentiment].
For this reason the various officials as well as all the people in the kingdom turned against Prince Karu and adhered to [his brother] Anapo-no-Miko.
Prince Karu flees, taking refuge at the palace of an ally. But when Anapo-no-Miko arrives with his army, this supposed ally turns the fugitive over to them, accompanied by appropriate songs (uta). (Presumably acknowledging the semi-divine character of the future emperor, the Kojiki describes the nobleman “lifting up his arms and hitting his thighs . . . dancing and singing.”)
When he was captured, the crown prince sang this song:
Karu maiden –
Should I cry loudly,
People would know.
Like the pigeons
On Pasa Mountain,
I cry secretly.
Again he sang:
Come hither secretly,
Sleep here and then go your way,
O Karu maiden!
Prince Karu was exiled to the hot springs of Iyo. When about to go into exile he sang this song:
Birds are also messengers.
When you hear
The cry of the crane,
Ask my name of it.
These three songs are Amada-Buri [Field of Heaven songs].
“Sky-flying” is a conventional epithet for “Karu,” based on the homology with kari, wild geese.
The translator elsewhere notes that, in ancient Japanese religion, birds were credited with the power of revitalizing a person and/or in transporting the spirit. Also, Japanese believed until quite recently that a living person’s spirit could manifest itself in more than one location at the same time. Thus, I suppose, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the prince to have died in order for a crane to transport something of his name/spirit/essence back to the yearning princess. At any rate, the birds are more like avatars than passive messengers here.
Then he sang this song:
If the great lord
Is exiled to an island,
There are ships [or “burial caskets”]
By which I may return.
Leave my sitting-mat alone!
Although I speak
Of sitting-mats, I really mean:
Leave my wife alone!
This song is Pina-Buri no Kata-Orosi [song in a rustic style with a half-descending pitch].
This song has the force of a spell. Prince Karu is threatening to come back from beyond the grave, a threat that would have been taken very seriously. Philippi notes that “the sitting mats of travelers were carefully kept at home and preserved from pollution during their absence in order to ensure their safe return.”
So-Toposi-no-Miko [i.e., Princess Karu] presented a song; the song said:
Oh, do not go, lest you tread
On the oyster shells
On the beach of Apine
Of the summer grass –
Spend the night and return in the morning!
Philippi: “The place name Apine may also mean ‘sleep together.'”
Then later, overwhelmed by her feeling, she went after him. At the time she sang this song:
Since you have set out,
Many days have passed.
Like the yama-tadu [elderberry] tree,
I will go in search of you;
I can no longer wait.
Since the text itself interrupts the narrative to comment on poetics, perhaps it’s O.K. if I do the same? These – like the first song attributed to the Princess – are both borrowed wholesale from the oral tradition; the last exists in a slightly different version, with different attribution, in the Manyoshu. (Like many of these songs, it employs a device called a pillow-word: a conventional simile based on a homophonal relationship, i.e., a cross between a pun and a metaphor.)
When she caught up with him, he had been waiting and yearning for her, and he sang this song:
On Mount Patuse
Of the hidden country,
On the large ridges
Are erected banners,
On the small ridges
Are erected banners.
As upon a large ridge,
Do you rely upon our troth,
Ah, my beloved spouse.
Like a Tuki bow
Like an Adusa bow
Standing up –
Later, I shall hold you close,
Ah, my beloved spouse!
Philippi notes, “. . . Komoru, ‘to conceal oneself’ . . . might be interpreted here as ‘to hide within the tomb.’ Patuse is known as an ancient burial place. Banners were set up in religious ceremonies and funerals.”
Again he sang this song:
On the river of Patuse
Of the hidden country,
In the upper shallows
A sacred post was staked,
In the lower shallows
A true post was staked.
On the sacred post
Was hung a mirror,
On the true post
Was hung a jewel.
Who is to me as a mirror,
Who is to me as a jewel –
Only if I hear
That she is there,
Do I wish to go home,
Do I yearn for my country.
Thus singing, they committed suicide together.
These two songs are Yomi-Uta [“reading songs,” probably meaning they were chanted with little inflection].
The actions described in the first and second stanzas of this final song have strong theurgic connotations, perhaps evoking rites to cleanse oneself of the pollution of death. Prince Karu is singing a song of conjuration to his wife/sister/mirror, collapsing the present into the immediate future of their death, and the wild country around them into the other world’s back-of-beyond. (Philippi cites a Japanese scholar who “believes this [song] was originally a prayer for safety during a journey.”)
If I quote at such length, risking copyright infringement, it is only because I suspect that the Kojiki is not nearly as well known as it should be among fans of world literature. The translation available on the Internet, by Basil Hall Chamberlain, is painful to read, both for its stilted language and its lack of scholarship. Many of the songs are extremely difficult to translate, so Donald Philippi’s expertise is indispensible. (In addition to his translation of the Kojiki, I highly recommend Philippi’s This Wine of Peace, This Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan’s Earliest Songs [Mushinsha, 1968].)
As Philippi observes, the Prince and Princess Karu story provides “the earliest documentary evidence of the double suicides that so enlivened the stage during the Edo period” a thousand years later. “In fact, the theatre-conscious commentator Nakajima [Etsuji] even claims that this chapter reflects a rudimentary dramatic performance.” I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In addition, their song exchange prefigures the widespread practice of frequent poem exchanges between friends and lovers that so shaped literary expression during the Heian Period.
The contrast with the Biblical story about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13) is striking. Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart. In its psychological depth, the entire David cycle resembles a modern novel, while the Prince and Princess Karu story anticipates the poetic profundity of later monogatari. And despite similar openings, the two stories diverge quite widely. Amnon experiences revulsion the moment he has consummated his passion for his sister, and sends her rudely away. The real, enduring longing in that story is revealed at the very end of the chapter, after Amnon is murdered by his brother Absolom in retaliation: “So Absalom fled, and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the soul of king David longed to go forth unto Absalom: for he was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead.”
For me, the story from the Kojiki perfectly encapsulates that special sense of longing for unattainable and/or transient beauty that permeates Japanese literature, from the elegies and laments of Kakinomoto no Hitomaru through the great Heian Period poets and novelists such as Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki, to the Heike Monogatari and even some of the works of famous monk-poets such as Saigyo, Basho and Ryokan, not to mention the dramas of Seami and Chickamatsu. Donald Keene, the most prolific English-language translator and critic of Japanese literature, put it this way:
Beyond the preference for simplicity and the natural qualities of things lies what is perhaps the most distinctively Japanese aesthetic ideal, perishability. The desire in the West has generally been to achieve artistic immortality, and this has led men to erect monuments in deathless marble. . . . The Japanese have built for impermanence, though paradoxically some of the oldest buildings in the world exist in Japan . . . . Whatever the subject matter of the old poems, the underlying meaning was often an expression of grief over the fragility of beauty and love. Yet the Japanese were keenly aware that without this mortality there could be no beauty.
(Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha, 1971)
Pathos, like other emotions, can best be gotten at through indirection: the blank spaces on the landscape painting no less than the words not uttered outright in a poem are essential to draw the viewer, listener or reader in. The animist mindset of Shinto helped focus poets’ attention on particularities, on the possibilities for sudden illumination inherent in a beautiful detail, long before the introduction of Zen Buddhism. Among the things to which autonomy and spiritual power were attributed, place names, personal names and all other poetic words occupied a prominent position. As the preface to the 9th-century anthology Kokinshu put it:
Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.
(Burton Watson, tr., in From the Country of Eight Islands, Doubleday, 1981)
Out of the countless expressions of this uniquely Japanese take on longing that I could cite from the modern era, let me round off this post with two poems by Takamura Kotaro. Takamura was a sculptor – the son of a carver of Buddhist images – and one of the first 20th-century poets to write successfully in the vernacular. Some of his most memorable poems are those he wrote for and about his common-law wife and fellow artist Chieko, chronicling their three-decade-long relationship from first meeting through her eventual, chronic insanity and death.
Both these poems are translated by Hiroaki Sato, from Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro (University Press of Hawaii, 1980).
Chieko Playing With Flowers
Where there is no one on the sands of Kojukuri
Sitting on the sand Chieko plays alone.
Innumerable friends call to Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii –
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
plovers come near her.
Chieko who is always talking to herself
raises both hands to call them.
Chii, chii, chii –
Plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Rising up in a flock the plovers call Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii –
Leaving off entirely the task of being human,
now having passed into the natural world
Chieko seems just a speck.
Some two hundred yards off in the windbreak, in the evening sun
bathed in pine pollen I stand, forgetting time.
Chieko sees what one cannot see,
hears what one cannot hear.
Chieko goes where one cannot go,
does what one cannot do.
Chieko does not see the living me,
yearns for the me behind me.
Chieko has cast off the weight of suffering,
has strayed out to the endless, desolate zone of beauty.
I persistently hear her call to me, but
Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.
Just as I prepare to post, I hear the cries of wild geese overhead, invisible in the thick fog.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
JOHNNY TO FRANKIE
I curse you & you come back
for more, your proud lip trembling.
You deny nothing.
There are words that should never be said &
I say them one by one because they are delicious.
Every stunned look has its echo
in the pit of my stomach. It terrifies me
how much of you I have taken in
& how much more I still need.
When a hound feels sick he eats
a little snakeroot, cleans himself out.
I love you beyond reason.
If only you would pay me back in my own coin.
“Frankie and Johnny” lyrics: traditional version, as interpreted by Cisco Houston, Van Morrison and (appropriately, and my favorite) Johnny Cash; Elvis Presley’s first-person version (lyrics by Gottlieb, Karger, Weisman); a review of the soundtrack for the Elvis movie musical is here.